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Thursday, 18 September 2008
Page: 7908

Ms JULIE BISHOP (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (11:50 AM) —While not opposing the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and the consequential provisions, there are a number of matters I wish to raise, for, adding to the succession of Labor’s botched policies since it came to government, this House is now to consider the establishment of Safe Work Australia—a body that will be dominated by state representatives making decisions about occupational health and safety policy for employers and employees who have little or no voice or influence in this process and who most certainly will have far less influence in terms of representation than they currently have on these issues. The government is seeking to replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council established by the coalition whilst in government to facilitate the tripartite coordination and harmonisation of workplace safety and workers compensation laws. Under the coalition, the Australian Safety and Compensation Council was designed to facilitate a national approach to workplace safety and workers compensation, utilising a tripartite, consultative method to draw on and include employer and employee knowledge and experience in the move towards a national occupational health and safety workers compensation system.

While the coalition is broadly supportive of a harmonised national occupational health and safety system, it would be difficult to imagine a body better designed to fail in achieving this objective than the body proposed under this bill. Unlike the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, Safe Work Australia reduces the number of social partners—that is, the industry and union representatives—from three to two for each partner. That is, there will be a total of four, not six, industry and union representatives. This is a reduction by one-third of representatives for each social partner. Compare that with the representation on the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, which is essentially being rebranded, albeit in a way that compromises the tripartite approach traditionally required for occupational health and safety regulation to effectively operate in workplaces.

The government’s proposed structure for Safe Work Australia will create an imbalance whereby workplaces directly impacted by the development and formulation of occupational health and safety will be denied the opportunity to genuinely participate in the decision-making process underpinning the formulation of such policy. Labor talks—often—about its commitment to occupational health and safety, yet Labor does not appear to understand that a process that does not seek to actively engage employers and workers in a meaningful way will not produce the improvements in workplace health and safety that are necessary for Australian workers. When it comes to effective safety in the workplace there can be no contest that improving and sustaining OH&S performance in the workplace from both an employer and an employee perspective is achieved by doing ‘with’ people, not by doing ‘to’ people.

This is particularly the case where achieving outcomes involves significant changes, costly changes or changes to culture. Once again, Labor has failed Australian workers and workplaces with the proposed establishment of Safe Work Australia. The current composition of Safe Work Australia fails to have proper regard for the views of industry and employees, which will undermine its credibility and the outcome it seeks to achieve prior to the bill even being passed. For many years, Australian workplaces, particularly those operating across state boundaries, have been forced to endure seven separate jurisdictions with seven sets of occupational health and safety laws and workers compensation requirements. The costs to business are prohibitive. Funds that could have been better spent by business on training, employee development or additional safety mechanisms are required to be spent understanding, complying with and implementing numerous OH&S and workers compensation systems across every state and territory. In contrast, those companies fortunate enough to secure self-insurance under the coalition government have saved literally millions of dollars and yet have still delivered safe and healthy workplaces for their employees. In the case of Safe Work Australia, we are now witnessing a common Labor trait, where they cross their fingers behind their backs and tell Australian workers and business that they are doing one thing but, instead, make decisions and create ineffective regulations that actually create more problems than they solve.

Labor is limiting the involvement of social partners, and this is just inconceivable. Why would Labor want to limit the number of representatives from employers and employees? This is no doubt going to lead to a situation where government representatives will be able to repeatedly override legitimate concerns raised by the social partners during OH&S harmonisation discussions, including concerns relating to increased costs, or to impractical safety proposals for workplaces. You have the bureaucrats outnumbering those who are actually working in the workplaces across Australia. With limited capacity to oppose various proposals there is no doubt Safe Work Australia will be used by the government to develop other codes, policies and regulations under the guise of safety to achieve certain industrial outcomes on behalf of minority interests that would otherwise need to be discussed with stakeholders at a state level.

Clearly, the government has borrowed this approach from its Labor counterparts at a state level, where workplaces are already in many cases overwhelmed with impractical and unworkable occupational health and safety laws. Now federal Labor wants to introduce a body to achieve harmonisation which will be dominated by those same Labor governments, their bureaucrats and their advisers who have already failed to establish in many cases workable occupational health and safety and workers compensation systems in their own states. Remarkably, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations is determined not to listen to stakeholders, not to listen to the representatives of employers, and of employees—the unions—with significant involvement in workplaces. Instead, the minister has chosen to reduce their representation and rely on state governments, who have already failed in their own backyards.

The foundation upon which Safe Work Australia has been established is fundamentally flawed, with the direction and success of Safe Work Australia also being contingent on the cooperation and participation of the ministerial council to which it is required to directly report. Members of the ministerial council have repeatedly failed to attend and/or cooperate with the Commonwealth in these meetings, which raises legitimate concerns about just how effective Safe Work Australia will be in an environment where state Labor governments have not been willing to cooperate and genuinely contribute to discussions about the harmonisation of occupational health and safety laws across Australia—particularly the New South Wales state Labor government, which has been reported by many as having the least effective and most costly OH&S system in this country.

Where the ministerial council fails to meet or refuses to cooperate and to consider the Safe Work Australia issues, the work of Safe Work Australia comes to a halt—that is it. Just last year we witnessed the New South Wales Minister for Industrial Relations refusing to cooperate in a national discussion on occupational health and safety. He refused to cooperate! If anything, this Safe Work Australia Bill, in its current form, will make it easier for uncooperative state Labor governments to undermine the harmonisation process for their own political gain. Further, the proposed structure creates an unjustifiable imbalance. Improving OH&S performance is critically dependent on a collaborative effort and the buy-in of all stakeholders. A process that does not seek to engage workers and employers in a meaningful way does not lead to improvements in workplace health and safety.

Labor’s duplicity is further highlighted by its unwillingness to report back to the parliament on the progress of Safe Work Australia. This is extraordinary. The bill currently proposes a process for reporting back to parliament on the progress of Safe Work Australia every six years. Every six years! It is incomprehensible that Labor wants to introduce a state dominated independent authority that has no requirement to report back to the federal parliament for six years. I would have thought that annual reporting on an issue as important as occupational health and safety and workers compensation would be appropriate. But every six years? Beyond the term of a government? This is a nonsense.

Safe Work Australia is just another botched policy—when it would have been so easy to get it right—on top of the failed Fuelwatch, the failed GroceryWatch, the proposed abolition of the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner and, in the past week, the failure of the award modernisation process, which industry says could potentially lead to significant job losses and inflationary outcomes. There is one common thread running through all of these botched Labor policies: the Labor government does not have a plan and is incapable of listening to Australians and delivering credible and acceptable policy solutions.

An example of this is the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner. It is under threat from the Labor government. Last year the construction industry contributed 6.7 per cent to Australia’s GDP and employed approximately 940,000 workers, or nine per cent of the Australian workforce. The coalition’s reforms and hard stance on lawlessness and corruption within the building and construction industry from 2002 onwards directly contributed to a significant reduction in the number and cost of strikes, increasing output and productivity. In comparison to the $76 million being spent by the Rudd Labor government to maybe, just maybe, achieve a 0.8 per cent increase in GDP, the Office of the ABCC, for a fraction of that cost—an average of $30 million a year—has already achieved a 1.5 per cent increase in GDP—

Mr Zappia —At the expense of people’s lives.

Mr Keenan —What rubbish! Protecting crooks like Kevin Reynolds and Joe McDonald.

Ms JULIE BISHOP —yet Labor has placed this dark cloud over the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner at the behest of its union bosses—and I take the interjection from the member for Stirling.

By watering down the compliance powers of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner and the national building code and then subsuming the body into some superbureaucracy, Fair Work Australia, Labor is opening the door wide and allowing the lawlessness, the corruption, to once again become the norm rather than the exception in the building and construction industry. If Labor were genuinely committed to ensuring the safety of workplaces, employees and employers, it would hold firm on the retention of the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner and the national building code—the two elements that have provided some degree of protection and safety for participants in that industry from the thuggish bullying tactics engaged in by certain elements of the building and construction unions.

There is already reported and widespread misuse of safety powers on building sites, and now Labor is proposing a body that may well water down any capacity workplaces have to control or address the misuse of such powers by watering down the powers of the ABCC and establishing Safe Work Australia, a state controlled safety authority. You can just imagine the representatives that the state Labor governments around the country will put on this body.

In their quest to appease the union movement and abolish the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner as it is currently constituted, members of the Labor government are disregarding the reason for the establishment of the Office of the ABCC and the introduction of the building code in the first place. This is reflected in the terms of reference of the Wilcox inquiry, where once again Labor appears to be rewriting history, pretending the Cole royal commission never, ever happened. There is no reference to the Cole royal commission or the reasons for the establishment of the Office of the ABCC in any aspect of the new terms of reference. In fact, the final terms of the inquiry contain no reference to considering the importance of retaining the independence of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner, nor the decline in industrial disputation in the construction sector since its establishment, nor the increase in productivity since the creation of the commissioner and the national building code.

Even worse, this month the head of the inquiry, Murray Wilcox QC, raised concerns about subcontractors being banned from tendering because they are non-compliant with code guidelines—non-compliant because they are, in many cases, breaking the law. Is the head of inquiry suggesting there is something wrong with employers being required to comply with the law? The purpose of the code and the building industry reforms in the first place was to prevent laws from being broken by union officials, contractors and employees. Why are we now hearing of concerns because the same parties are required to follow the law under the building reforms? Labor’s terms of reference for the Wilcox inquiry contain not one reference to how it will ensure the rule of law will be maintained and not overridden once more by industrial might. There is only one reason for this: Labor has no intention of maintaining the rule of law in the building and construction industry. For its payback to the union movement and its attempts to undermine the effective operation of workplaces in the building industry, the Labor government should be condemned.

The flawed policies all contributing to the demise of a once outstanding economic position keep on coming from Labor, with last week’s release of a draft exposure award from the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in response to a direct award modernisation request from the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Not only are there 1.88 million small businesses staring down the barrel of significant costs in the form of extended redundancy obligations but the retail and hospitality industries are predicting labour costs will increase by up to 20 per cent as a direct result of the employment minister’s award modernisation request. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission has been unable to comply with the employment minister’s pledge to not increase costs for employers and not disad-vantage employees. It was an impossible position that the employment minister placed on the AIRC.

The national retailers association has said employers will have no choice but to pass increased costs on to consumers and reduce staff levels as a direct result of the employment minister’s award modernisation request. The restaurant and caterers association of Australia has submitted that Labor’s award modernisation request will add up to $40 million in additional labour costs, leading to excessive closures and job losses—another botched policy decision leading to job losses and inflationary outcomes.

A close inspection of recent ABS statistics shows that there has been an 800 per cent increase in working days lost in the first six months of the Rudd government compared with the first six months of last year. When the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations was asked about this very serious issue that affects workplaces across Australia—

Mr Dreyfus —Madam Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order on relevance. We have been waiting for the honourable member to return in some way to the subject matter of this bill, which is safety. We have just endured about 10 minutes—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms JA Saffin)—Would the honourable member for Isaacs please resume his seat. I am aware of the standing order on relevance. This is a robust chamber where we do engage in wide-ranging debate, but I would ask the Deputy Leader of the Opposition to direct her comments to the bill.

Ms JULIE BISHOP —Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. And when the min-ister for employment was asked about the number of strikes that had occurred under the new government—the industrial action that inevitably affects safety in the work-place, if the member for Isaacs has not ever under-stood that connection—the minister said in response that it was all to do with new agreement making. Yet the same Aust-ralian Bureau of Statistics figures show that 74 per cent of the working days lost had nothing to do with new agreement making. We are still waiting to hear from Labor as to the cause of this massive increase in industrial disputation since Labor came to office.

Labor came to office vowing to turn back the Liberal and National Party workplace relations reforms, albeit that they had delivered benefits such as low inflation and the lowest unemployment rate in more than 30 years. Labor must now manage economic problems such as inflation and slowing growth. It must now also seriously look at its workplace relations policies. What is at stake was made clear a few months ago by the Reserve Bank governor, Glenn Stevens, discussing why 1970s style stagflation—that is, high inflation and low growth—should not occur today in Australia. He said:

A key difference today, thus far, has been the behaviour of labour costs … If you go back to the mid-1970s, you had the government leading the charge in pushing wages up, you had a very different balance of power between the unions and business, a different quasi-judicial industrial relations system, and we had a serious wage-price problem back then … We don’t have that at the moment, and we must make sure we don’t get it.

The importance of efficient and flexible labour markets to achieving macroeconomic objectives has been made clear in a series of OECD economic surveys of Australia. While the Labor government is very good at trying to suggest that the Reserve Bank gave warn-ings about inflation, when you look at those statements you see that that is complete fallacy on the part of Labor. They are rewriting history once more. They ought to take note of the OECD comments about a decentralised industrial relations system, less adversarial labour relations and greater labour flexibility. The coalition understood the central importance of workplace relations to the economic wellbeing of the country. The Rudd Labor government clearly does not.

The Deputy Prime Minister and her department have made it clear that, in the 10 months since taking office, no analysis has been undertaken on the effects of Labor’s workplace relations policy on unemployment, inflation or economic growth. Incredibly, the minister has not requested a detailed, rigorous analysis of Labor’s workplace relations policy from her department nor sought assistance from Treasury. And the minister shows no intention of commissioning any serious analysis of the policies she is introducing. Instead, like the ostrich in the fable, the minister has buried her head in the sand, hoping to avoid any uncomfortable truths from the world around her.

Labor’s aversion to evidence is typical of its approach to policy. The Prime Minister promised evidence based policy but has delivered evidence-free policy. Labor ignored the advice of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Finance and other departments on Fuelwatch. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has stopped preparing written comments on cabinet submissions—at whose command is unclear. The fact is that the government is refusing to take advice, and the establishment of Safe Work Australia is yet another example of this. How could it possibly set up a body that reduces the voice of employers and employees if it were serious about improving occupational health and safety in this country?

This lack of attention to evidence and the views of stakeholders does not end there. Yesterday the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations revealed her deep ignorance about a very fundamental economic issue: productivity and the measurement of productivity in Australia. In a speech at the National Press Club the minister said:

… Work Choices was neither a recipe for fairness nor for prosperity. In fact, after its introduction annual productivity fell by two-thirds.

I will repeat that. The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations said: ‘In fact after its introduction annual productivity fell by two-thirds.’ Now, if that were actually the case, and Australia’s annual productivity had fallen by two-thirds, GDP would now be closer to $370 billion than to $1.1 trillion. It is disturbing that the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations does not understand such a basic economic concept as productivity. The minister also confirmed that the Rudd government’s proposed new workplace relations regime will be a Trojan horse for the union movement to resume practices such as pattern bargaining—which the minister supported at the Press Club yesterday—unrestricted access to workplaces and compulsory unionism.

The fact is that Labor’s workplace rela-tions changes—and this bill is part of this consideration—are going to cause a great deal of concern in workplaces across Aust-ra-lia. One serious concern is that Labor’s introduction of so-called good-faith bargaining will result in situations where employers are dragged before Labor’s industrial umpire and where unwanted conditions and wages can be imposed on workplaces. The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations also said yesterday that pattern bargaining was not such a bad idea. We on this side of the House know that wage claims in one area of the economy which can absorb an increase should not be passed on and spread to other sectors of the economy which cannot absorb one. That is the type of environment for a wage-inflation spiral that can lead to the types of recessions we have seen under Labor governments before—and yet, astonishingly, the minister said yesterday that she supported pattern bargaining. The minister also confirmed that the Rudd government’s proposed new laws will allow unions to force employers into deducting employee union dues on their behalf.

The establishment of Safe Work Australia is another botched policy by Labor that reduces the voice of, incredibly, the unions, but also employers, effectively taking away the influence of those who know best when it comes to the issue of occupational health and safety in the workplace and putting it in the hands of state government bureaucrats—another job for Labor mates. What we are seeing is a watering down of the influence of the people who are best positioned to improve occupational health and safety in this country. Labor’s workplace relations changes, like its emissions trading scheme, are major policies which, if poorly conceived and implemented, will add greatly to the na-tion’s economic challenges. With the tumul-tuous international financial markets and the global financial insecurity we are now witnessing across the world, Australia cannot afford to embrace policies that cause job losses or job insecurity, but that is what we are seeing under this government’s so-called ‘reforms’ of workplace relations.